Sunday, December 20, 2015

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin

Chris Ewan, The Good Thief's Guide to Berlin
Minotaur Books, 2013

With apologies--there are a number of spoilers in this review.

Charlie Howard, thief extraordinaire and mystery writer, has been in Berlin, breaking into apartments of publishing house editors who are out-of-town at a convention.  And trying to finish his current manuscript.  (In that respect, he has the assistance--or, perhaps, motivation because of the presence--of his editor, Victoria.)  His Paris contact, Pierre, calls him with word that the brother of a mutual friend wishes to talk with him about a burglary-for-hire, in Berlin.  He agrees to meet the man, who is a security officer at the British Embassy in Berlin, Freddy Farmer.  An important "package" has been stolen from the Embassy, Farmer has 4 suspects, and he wants Howard to go to their residences in a specifies order, and search for the package.  Which he will not describe.  Howard agrees, and they settle on a fee (a specified minimum per place searched, plus a bonus for finding the "package"). 

While in the first apartment, Howard looks out the window and sees a murder being committed in an apartment across the street.  And he does not find the package.  He does, however, call the Berlin police, who find no body, and no sign of a murder.  Oops.

Unfortunately for Howard, the Russians, the French, the Americans, and the Germans are all after the "package" as well.  The Russians, in particular, are willing to use threats of violence, and actual violence, to gain his cooperation.  The Americans offer more money--and then they kidnap Victoria.

At the apartment of the second suspect (an embassy employee, Jane, who is not at home, and turns out to be missing), Howard finds 4 pages of what appears to be a coded message--but Freddy tells him that's not the "package."  Attempt #3 third (one of the embassy cleaning people) is also fruitless, but he finally turns up the "package"--a bird cage, complete with talking parrot--in the home of the fourth, a high-ranking embassy official.

I like the characters, and the story moves right along.  But there are at least two major--and I mean major--difficulties with the plot.  First, Howard witnesses a murder, and one of the suspects is missing.  He does not think to ask for a description, and only much later demands to see the personnel dossiers of the suspects.  (And when he sees them, he keeps to himself the knowledge that Jane is the woman he saw being murdered.  Obviously, he's not telling the embassy folks, whom he doesn't exactly trust.  In any event, I thought it was fairly obvious, and had been expecting that Jane was the victim for quite some time.)  Second, the bird (Burt) keeps asking if Howard wants to hear him count.  Now, when I hear something about a series of numbers, and I know a code is somehow involved, I leap to the conclusion that there might, just might, somehow be a connection.  But not Charlie.  Until, actually, Victoria figures it out in the climactic scene.

A somewhat minor plot difficulty is that the code turns out to be ridiculously easy to solve (it's apparently a letter-substitution cipher of a remarkably simple sort, even given that it dates from World War II or immediately after)--it's decoded by a German who lives under an abandoned amusement park.  In about 15 minutes.  Go figure.

I enjoyed the characters and the setting well enough to read more in the series, but I rather hope the rest of the plots are somewhat tighter.  ✩✩✩1/2

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